National Forum Partners with Dr. Susan Sturm and Yleana Roman in Researching Undocumented Student Access to Higher Education

The National Forum is partnering with scholars around the nation to produce three research papers on undocumented students in higher education.

“The Forum identified gaps in the literature regarding higher education officials’ response to the crisis regarding undocumented students,” says Angela Vidal-Rodriguez, leader of the Higher Education Access research team at the National Forum.  “After that, the Forum reached out to the leading experts in media, law, and collective organizing to fill the void.”

The three scholars were invited to write papers addressing the role these factors play in issues regarding undocumented students, through funding from the Carnegie Foundation.  The research is already well underway, and the finished papers will be available on the National Forum website this spring.

Dr. Susan Sturm, George M. Jaffin Profesor of Law and Social Responsibility at Columbia Law School, and Yleana Roman, Post Doctoral Research Scholar, Center for Institutional and Social Change, are writing about legal counsel and legal considerations.  Susan is an expert on affirmative action, gender equity, and institutional change, and her awards include the 2007 Presidential Teaching Award at Columbia University.  Dr. Sturm and Ms. Roman were kind enough to take the time to share some information regarding their paper with the Forum.

National Forum:  Could you share some details about the paper?

Dr. Sturm and Ms. Roman:  Many higher education institutions and leaders are engaged in increasing access to higher education for first generation and low-income college-bound students.  This place-based goal of expanding educational access to underserved populations necessarily includes figuring out how to provide higher education access for immigrants, including those who are undocumented.  Along with continuing efforts at the federal level to pass the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), advocates and educators have focused increased attention on addressing the educational needs of undocumented students at the state and local level. In many cases, the current legal and political environment has led institutions to address the educational needs of undocumented students through informal relationships, policies and practices that provide the financial and social supports needed for undocumented students to gain access to and succeed in college.   Institutions and leaders must navigate difficult legal terrain and find ways to connect the networks of faculty, students, administrators, community members, and policy makers involved in doing this work, under conditions of high conflict and polarization.

The Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School is partnering with the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good on a research project examining the role of lawyers—general counsel, immigration lawyers, and lawyers in non-profit advocacy organizations—in supporting educational access to undocumented students. Under the leadership of Susan Sturm and with the research support of Yleana Roman and Adriana Garcia,  the Center’s project involves conducting field research exploring the roles, strategies, and relationships of lawyers involved in providing advice and support on issues of undocumented student access in higher education.  This project seeks to understand lawyers as institutional actors operating at the boundaries of institutions and their legal and policy environments, in advancing the full participation of undocumented students in higher education.  By gathering and collecting the narratives, strategies, and networks of lawyers, the project will produce a research paper that highlights and explains the role of lawyers as providing important organizational “boundary functions” that work to inform institutional leaders’ decisions in an area of legal ambiguity and political polarization.   The paper will build on work done by the Center, in collaboration with students in the Diversity and Innovation Seminar, on undocumented students as transformative leaders and on institutional strategies for increasing access to higher education for undocumented students.

National Forum:  What are some ways in which legal considerations have impacted undocumented students in higher education in the past?

Dr. Sturm and Ms. Roman:  Federal law passed in 1996 prohibits states from providing any higher education benefit based on residency to undocumented immigrants unless they provide the same benefit to U.S. citizens in the same circumstances.  The majority of all student aid, including federal student aid requires the applicant to be a U.S. citizen, a Legal Permanent Resident (“LPR”) or an eligible non-citizen.  Without government financial assistance, undocumented immigrants are forced to cover tuition out-of-pocket.  Most undocumented students come from low-income families and do not have the ability to contribute to tuition at four-year institutions.  The cost of a post-secondary education is especially an obstacle in states where undocumented people are not eligible for in-state tuition, a reduced tuition rate available for students who can prove state residency at state public postsecondary institutions.  These legal barriers that prevent undocumented students from applying for federal financial aid, make a college education unaffordable for them and their families.  Fortunately, efforts at the local and state level do exist in favor of these students.  Since 2001, a total of twelve states have enacted legislation giving undocumented students who meet specific requirements in-state tuition rates at public post-secondary institutions.  Generally, in-state tuition laws have a huge influence on whether undocumented students can access and afford higher education.  Some studies have shown that states with in-state tuition allow undocumented students more opportunities to enroll in higher education institutions because the cost of financing their education is much lower.  In states without in-state tuition it is much more difficult to afford a higher education institution.  These restrictive laws limit a student’s ability to finance an education.

National Forum:  What are some ways in which the topic of immigration in higher education relate to your previous research?

Dr. Sturm and Ms. Roman:  The Center for Institutional and Social Change ( develops knowledge and practice that enables ongoing change needed for (1) individuals and groups to participate fully and thrive within institutions and communities; (2) institutions to take up their responsibilities to the larger society; and (3) policymakers to create contexts that facilitate full participation.  The topic of immigration in higher education fits squarely within our mission to increase full participation of underserved communities in higher education.  Immigrants, and undocumented students as part of this larger group, have traditionally faced increased barriers to access and success in higher education.  The Center has conducted research around undocumented student access and success in higher education for the past year and a half, focusing on institutional actors’ and undocumented student leaders’ roles and strategies in building capacity.  In addition, Susan Sturm and her students have conducted extensive research on the role of lawyers in facilitating lawful innovation, and that research is serving as a base for the current study on the role of lawyers in increasing undocumented students’ educational access and success.

National Forum:  What are some interesting things you have learned through the preliminary research for this paper?

Dr. Sturm and Ms. Roman:  Thus far, the lawyers interviewed come from a wide array of institutions, organizations, and firms and each come at this issue in different ways.  The context — the geographic location, the state law, and the types of partners they work with — has a profound influence on what kind of strategies lawyers enact and what kind of roles they play in advancing these strategies.

National Forum:  Ideally, what would you like to study in the future related to immigration and institutions of higher education?

Dr. Sturm and Ms. Roman:  Ideally, the center would further study the overlap between undocumented students and first generation students in the pursuit of higher education. There is considerable overlap between these two groups and strategies for advancing first-generation students can help undocumented students and also appeal to higher education institutions that desire to have as a broad an impact as possible when increasing participation at their institutions.

The National Forum would like to thank Susan and Yleana for taking the time to share information about their research projects with the National Forum.  More information about their past and current research can be found at Susan Sturm’s bio on the Columbia University website, and at Yleana Roman’s bio.




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